Hanging Out in Rockford: Hanging with friends at Cliffbreakers

Wednesday evening, Katy Larson, Jim Thacker and I are sitting at the little bar at the Irish Rose. Katy and I have had a really busy day working on our new project and, as I am famous for saying, I am tired of playing restaurant. I tell Jim I am going to go out to get something to eat. Jim says he is hungry, too, and we talk about where we should go. I defer to their tastes, but they are not forthcoming.

Suddenly, I have an idea. I say we should go up to Cliffbreakers now that Philippe Forcioli is the chef. I tell them he has been in for dinner a couple of times recently, and that he told me to wait to stop by until he had time to wrap his arms around it. But he has been there for a few months now, and it should be time.

They are reluctant, but I am persuasive. I tell them I will buy. I tell them how my old girlfriend Sally and I used to brag about the fact we could have fun anywhere. It’s about the company. Going out is about planning to have a good time. I feel sorry for people who don’t understand that. People who do not are doomed to a lifetime of frustration.

We drive up to Cliffbreakers and find seats at the bar. The beautiful Katy sits between the two thorns. This is my idea, to just sit at the bar and order appetizers. I like to eat this way. Jim plays wine aficionado and orders for us—a red, I’m not even sure what it is. I am way beyond playing the wine game. If one of my suppliers presents 10 wines, I can pick the one that got the best score, but I dislike the whole game of wine one-upmanship. I want to drink my wine, not rhapsodize about it or think about it too much. Jim picks a great red.

We order several items from the back of the menu, which is all appetizers. Again, Jim takes the lead with Katy assisting. They order a shrimp dish and some baked brie. I interject, only to insist that we order some of the samosas. I have a feeling they are going to be good. Mike, the new owner, walks up to us and greets us. He is very friendly, and really makes us feel at home. I have heard he has been extremely successful at other types of business and that now he wants to try the hospitality game. He has certainly bitten off quite a chunk for his first try.

We get our food, and Jim and Katy are now all oohs and aahs. I gloat quietly. Well, maybe not so quietly. I tell them they should know when I tell them something is going to be good, it usually is. Philippe shows up and immediately starts to flirt with Katy. It’s part of the license of being French. He is over with her, Katy having now moved to the far end, with his arm around her. I make a remark about his not having hugged me, and he immediately leaves her to put his arms around me.

I am busy stuffing myself with the delicious samosas when Philippe brings some really good walleye on the house. Moments later, he arrives again with three fabulous desserts, all obviously made from scratch. In fact, he brags to me that everything is now made from scratch. I would expect nothing less from him—he is a true food professional, and the single person I respect above all others in the food business in Rockford. Just to make his point absolutely clear, he brings me some fresh homemade bread. It is exactly like the Irish Rose bread, but that is understandable since it was Philippe’s father-in-law Jack who taught my mother to make bread 17 years ago.

Philippe takes me on a kitchen tour. He is obviously very proud of his new endeavor. He tells me all the banquets are now being done with scratch product. That’s really quite an undertaking when you consider the scope of this huge operation. There is interesting counter-play between him and Mike. You can see they are enthused about their new role, that of becoming the best banquet facility/hotel/restaurant in Rockford and maybe northern Illinois. I wish them luck.

We have one more bottle of wine and hang out. Good times and good friends, not to mention good food. But the very best part is at the end when Jim picks up the check.

Mike Leifheit’s “Hanging Out In Rockford” reviews locally-owned restaurants, businesses and Rockford life. Leifheit is owner of the Irish Rose restaurant in the downtown River District.

from the May 2-8, 2007, issue

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